Written by Micah Solomon
Principle 1: Minimize the likelihood of public social media complaints in the first place.
If your friend saw you had your fly undone, or there was spinach in your teeth, would he tweet about it? No, he'd quietly tell you.
In this same spirit, why should unhappy customers complain indirectly via Twitter or their blogs when they can use email, the phone, or a feedback form on your website and know that it will be answered -- immediately and with empathy? With their round-the-clock access to the social airwaves, make sure that the first impulse of customers is to reach you directly, day or night, by offering "chime in" forms everywhere; direct chat links for when your FAQ's fail to assist; and an easy way to reply directly to every corporate email you send out.
Principle 2. Digital arguments with customers who do post negative items are an exponentially losing proposition.
We all know: You can't win an argument with a customer. If you lose, you lose directly; if you win, you still lose -- by losing the customer. But online, the rule is multiplied manifold because of all the additional customers you'll lose if they catch sight of the argument. So, you need to learn to breathe deeply and think of the future of your company rather than reacting in haste.
Principle 3: Turn twankers into thankers: Reach out directly to online complainers
Okay, now that you're lying back, being careful not to fly off the handle, you can respond in a considered, positive manner. Let's say you've spotted an outrageous tweet about your firm:
Company X double-bills all customers -- Must Think We R Suckrs -- _FAIL
How should you respond? If this person follows you on Twitter, that makes you able to send him a direct message -- so do it. Include a direct email address and direct phone number. If, however, said twanker isn't one of your followers, you'll need to figure out another way to reach him. How about replying publicly, on Twitter, listing your email address and expressing your chagrin and concern. (In an online forum such as a blog, TripAdvisor, or Facebook, you can respond in a similar manner, but through the comment mechanisms available there.)
By responding this way, you have a good chance to move the discussion out of a public venue and into a one-on-one situation, where you can work directly with your antagonist without thousands of eyes dissecting every move or, worse, catching bits and pieces as things progress, without ever grasping the whole story. This dispute resolution approach is like an in-store situation where you take an irate customer aside, perhaps into your office, to privately discuss the matter, giving you both a chance to work together to arrive at a resolution.
And, after a successful resolution, politely ask the complainer to amend or even withdraw those original ugly comments.
Principle 4: Avoid the fiasco formula: a digital stitch in time . . .
Can you spell F-I-A-S-C-O? The formula is:
Small Error +Slow Response Time = Colossal PR Disaster
That is, the magnitude of a social media uproar increases disproportionately with the length of your response time. Be aware that a negative event in the online world can gather social steam with such speed that your delay itself can become more of a problem than the initial incident. A day's lag in responding can be too much.
About the Author: Micah Solomon, author of High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service, is the customer service strategist and speaker termed by the Financial Post "a new guru of customer service excellence." Solomon is a top keynote speaker, strategist, and consultant on customer service issues, the customer experience, and company culture -- and how they fit into today's marketing and technology landscape. An entrepreneur and business leader, he previously co-authored the bestselling Exceptional Service, Exceptional Profit. His expertise has been featured in Fast Company, Inc. Magazine, Bloomberg Business Week, CNBC, Forbes.com, and elsewhere, and he created and helms the "College of the Customer" website. Connect with him at http://www.micahsolomon.com.